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Logan supervisors asked for support

Organization seeks to end gerrymandering

The Blair County coordinator for an organization that has been pushing to eliminate the gerrymandering of legislative districts in Pennsylvania asked the Logan Township supervisors last week for a resolution supporting its effort.

The supervisors took no action, pending a potential discussion of the matter with other elected officials in the county and state — although a couple of them told Steve Elfelt of Fair Districts PA that they support the idea of reforming the way districts are drawn.

In 2018, the organization thought the state had to initiate the necessary changes that year to get the reforms in place in time for the redistricting that will occur based on the 2020 census, which just got underway.

Since then, however, based on a closer analysis of the necessary steps, waiting periods and deadlines, the organization “saw a new way forward” that still allows for the reform to take place in time for districts to be drawn in a neutral fashion for the coming decade, Elfelt said.

Reform of the method for drawing federal Congressional districts can be done simply by passing a state law, Elfelt said.

Reform of the method for drawing General Assembly districts is harder, because it requires a proposed law to pass in the same form in two successive legislative sessions, followed by a successful referendum on the changes.

The current method for redrawing the U.S. Congressional map is by regular statute, passed by the General Assembly, signed by the governor. Lawmakers have claimed that the process is transparent, but the most recent one was without content until the final days of its passage and signature by the governor, giving virtually no time for evaluation by the public, Elfelt said.

The current method for redrawing state House and Senate districts calls for the majority and minority leaders of both chambers, plus, usually, a person appointed by the State Supreme Court, to create the new districts after each census.

It’s done in private, and the results are invariably politicized, with the party orientation of the Supreme Court often the deciding factor, due to the court’s appointment of the tiebreaking voter — although the process actually tends to be so amicable it’s been called “buddymandering,” according to Elfelt.

Gerrymandered districts, characterized by tortured boundaries, give a distorted reflection of voter distribution in the state.

There are various gerrymandering strategies, according to a chart distributed by Elfelt’s group.

The “partisan handshake” concentrates voters of each party in separate districts to ensure incumbents from each get re-elected.

The “cracked” method distributes a disfavored “population” in small numbers into districts in a way to ensure the population becomes irrelevant.

The “packed” method places voters into districts in high concentrations to eliminate their influence in other districts.

“Hijacking” draws districts pitting two incumbents against one another, so one is eliminated.

“Kidnapping” redraws a district so the incumbent lives outside the new boundaries and is no longer eligible to run in the district he has represented.

When he began working on gerrymandering reform a few years ago, Elfelt regarded party leaders as the main perpetrators in a malign system, but now he think’s it’s the fault of a system that “dangle(s) such an outrageous opportunity (for) abuse.”

In 2018, the state Supreme Court struck down the 2011 U.S. House district map drawn by the Republican-controlled General Assembly and a Republican governor, a map that helped give the Republicans a 13-5 congressional delegation majority for three elections, despite a Democratic edge in voters.

As required, the court gave the General Assembly a chance to draw a new and fairer map, but lawmakers never convened to try, Elfelt said.

The court, which has a Democratic majority, redrew the maps itself, and in November 2018, the Congressional delegation ended up evenly split, 9-9.

The court’s Congressional map, along with the State House and State Senate district maps, will give way to new maps in 2021.

Fair Districts PA wants that to be done by an independent, non-partisan, citizens’ Redistricting Commission charged with creating compact, contiguous districts of equal population that respect county and municipal boundaries — with no gerrymandering.

The bills that could make that happen are House Bill 22 and 23 and Senate Bill 1022 and 1023.

The latter of each pair applies to creation of Congressional districts and need to be passed by both chambers and signed into law by the governor before the end of the current session of the General Assembly.

The resultant law would create the Redistricting Commission, comprising 11 registered voters, four from each party, plus three unaffiliated or third-party voters.

No politicians or lobbyists would be permitted on the commission, whose operation would be transparent to the public.

The former bill of each pair applies to the State House and Senate districts.

It calls for a constitutional amendment and needs to be passed by both chambers early this summer in time for three months of advertising before the November election, then passed again in the same form in both chambers by the end of February — in the new session of the General Assembly — in time for three more months of advertising.

Then it needs to be approved by referendum in the May 2021 primary.

“Nothing is more fundamental to a representative democracy than making sure people’s votes pick the people’s representatives without unfair thumbs on the scale,” stated Elfelt in a letter distributed to the supervisors.

Municipalities representing more than half the population of the state have passed the resolution recommended to the Logan supervisors, Elfelt said.

Elected officials in Altoona, Hollidaysburg and Tyrone passed it in 2018, he said.

Passed resolutions are delivered to government officials, including Gov. Tom Wolf, all local lawmakers, the county commissioners and the chairs of the county political committees, according to literature distributed by Elfelt.

The Logan supervisors should discuss Elfelt’s proposed resolution with other members of the Blair County Association of Township Supervisors and with the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors before deciding whether to adopt, Patterson said.

“I don’t want to go out there on a limb,” he said.

“(Still) there are legitimate concerns” about the current method of redistricting, said Supervisor Joe Metzgar.

It’s hardly fitting that a few people in a back room should make decisions for everybody, said Supervisor Ron Heller.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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